Online Learning: Good, Bad, Inevitable

This post follows from my last discussion of the sale of Blackboard, but it originated with an unexpected but interesting correspondence with David Decker, President of Franklin University, Ohio’s preeminent business-oriented university.

I had made an off-hand (i.e., unresearched) claim that online higher education is simply inferior to a traditional, in-person experience, and used Franklin (which offers both traditional and online versions of several of its undergraduate and graduate programs) as an example of the difference.  Dr. Decker wrote to me, insisting that I was wrong, and that outcome assessments showed the two versions of the educational experience to be indistinguishable.  I found his adamant assertion both interesting (Dr. Decker is a graduate of Grinnell College and a Wharton M.B.A.—you can’t get more face-to-face than that) and provocative. He clearly underwent a conversion of sorts, and he’s now a firm believer in online learning.  Grateful for his prompt,  I decided to do my homework and make a more considered argument. Maybe, as a humanist, I’ve just been socialized to assume that traditional pedagogy is superior to any teaching and learning that could be done online.  What I learned has at least tempered my skepticism.

One thing for certain is that online education is here to stay.  No matter what happens to Blackboard, online course management software programs are firmly entrenched in too many institutions (traditional and for-profit alike) for online learning ever to go away.  The best place to learn more is to visit the Sloan Consortium’s Web site.  That team has  done comprehensive studies of online learning since 2001.  Not surprisingly, the demand for online instruction has grown extraordinarily, and that demand seems to be increasing more rapidly than ever.  The seventh annual Sloan Survey of Online Learning, published in 2009, reveals that “online enrollment rose by nearly 17 percent from a year earlier. The survey, a collaborative effort between the Babson Survey Research Group, the College Board, and the Sloan Consortium, is the leading barometer of online learning in the United States. Using results from more than 2,500 colleges and universities nationwide, the report finds approximately 4.6 million students were enrolled in at least one online course in fall 2008.” That’s nearly a third of the overall student population in the country.

Equally significant are the kinds of institutions where online learning is growing fastest.  As I’ve observed in earlier posts, some are for-profit institutions, such as Walden University (privately owned, 47,500 students; its Chancellor, former President Bill Clinton will give the school’s commencement address this month).  What about non-profit institutions?  An earlier Sloan report reveals a marked difference between kinds of schools:  “two-year associate-degree institutions not only had the highest annual growth rate at 24 percent, but they also accounted for half of the online enrollments for the past five years, the report says. Baccalaureate-awarding institutions, on the other hand, had the lowest online enrollments and the smallest annual growth rate, at 6.9 percent.”

That’s the big picture.  Next two posts:  the pros and cons.


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